The Man and His Music
Edited by Alan Walker
Barrie & Jenkins, Hardback, 1970.
8vo. Xvi+471 pp. First Edition. Preface by the editor, 6 May 1968 [xiii-xiv].
First published, 1970.
Notes on Contributors
Sacheverell Sitwell: Liszt: A Character Study
Arthur Hedley: Liszt the Pianist and Teacher
Alan Walker: Liszt's Musical Background
Louis Kentner: Solo Piano Music (1827-61)
John Ogdon: Solo Piano Music (1861-86)
David Wilde: Transcriptions for Piano
Louis Kentner: The Interpretation of Liszt's Piano Music
Christopher Headington: The Songs
Robert Collet: Works for Piano and Orchestra
Humphrey Searle: The Orchestral Works
Robert Collet: Choral and Organ Music
Alan Walker: Liszt and the Twentieth Century
A Biographical Summary
Register of Persons
Complete Catalogue of Liszt's Works
Index to Music Examples
What a great surprise this book has turned out to be! Considering all that has happened in Lisztian scholarship during the last four decades or so, the volume is surprisingly little dated.
Indeed, a great deal has happened. One may even call it a complete re-evaluation of Liszt's position among the great composers from the nineteenth century. Two events stand out: Alan Walker's magisterial biography Franz Liszt (3 vols., 1983-1996), a product of brilliant writing style, powerful mind and quarter of a century scrupulous research that has managed in mere 1500 pages or so to demolish tons of myths about Liszt's personality; the second fabulous achievement in the field is, of course, Leslie Howard's monumental recording of Liszt's complete piano music, a gargantuan mission which took him more than two decades and nearly 100 well-filed compact discs, to say nothing of the fact that he wrote all liner notes and did an enormous amount of musicological research himself. So today we have a much better idea of Liszt's complex personality and his vast output; Leslie's recordings, for instance, include a number of world premieres prepared from unpublished manuscripts, whereas in recent years such totally forgotten parts of Liszt's oeuvre such as his songs or choral works have been recorded and assiduously studied. It is worth noting that Liszt's symphonic works, too, have enjoyed fecundity of recordings unknown before.
Mr Walker has been accused of partisanship and Mr Howard's artistry has been criticised, but no one has ever doubted the scholarship of either. Considering all that, Franz Liszt: The Man and His Music still makes a surprisingly rewarding read.
The major reason for my acquiring this book was the fact that it is edited by Alan Walker. As it turned out, the man is just as brilliant an editor as he is an author. Apart from two fine chapters that will be discussed below, Alan Walker has written a short but extremely meaningful preface and has supplied the writings of his contributors with abundant footnotes indicating cross-references and adding important additional information. The final success of the book is no doubt due also to Mr Walker's choice of contributors: all of them are experienced Lisztian scholars, and almost each one of them is also a musician who has carried ''Liszt's music in his ears and fingers, and who has lived on terms of intimacy with it for a long time – in some cases, for a lifetime.'' I should like to start reviewing the contents of the volume in more detail with Mr Walker's primary contributions to it, particularly his astonishing preface which I quote here in full save for the last paragraph:
Of all great nineteenth-century composers, Liszt alone still remains to be fully explored. His contemporaries – Chopin, Schumann, Wagner – have long since come into their own. But Liszt's true posterity still lies in the future. Why?
In the first place, there is his vast output. Nobody knew better than Liszt himself the tremendous struggle it cost him, while in his thirties, to shake off his brilliantly successful career as a pianist in order to devote himself to composing. The outcome of that struggle was a body of music – 1300 or more works - which, in sheer quantity, is unequalled by any other major composer, with the possible exception of Bach. Not even the experts know it all. Liszt, in fact, is a standing indictment against musicians and musicology alike, and it is nothing short of scandalous that almost a century after his death there are works by him still awaiting their publication – let alone their first performances.
Then there are the critics. In some quarters, the very name of Liszt has always provoked hostility, and it probably always will. He has been variously accused of vulgarity, showmanship, charlatanry even. In puritan
especially, Liszt has had a rough time, and it is still considered to show
'lack of taste' to admire his more extrovert pieces such as the Hungarian
rhapsodies and the operatic paraphrases. I have a theory which may reveal my
own attitude towards such criticism, and that there is no emotional attribute
in music, of any kind, which we ourselves do not put there. If we take music to
be 'vulgar', that can only be because it reminds us of a side of our own
artistic personalities which we do not like, and which would sooner forget
about. Music not only tells us something about the composer; it tells us
something about ourselves, too. A great deal of the criticism projected on to
Liszt is of this patently autobiographical type. But perhaps it is not up to me
to try and explain why Liszt's detractors do not like him. Perhaps it is up to
those detractors to explain why his admirers do, and to draw the conclusion. It
has always seemed to me to be infinitely more rewarding to give up one's
dislikes rather than one's likes, and I take it to be musically more fruitful
as well. England
As if it were not enough to have to survive one's critics, one has to survive one's interpreters too. It is difficult to think of another nineteenth-century composer who has been so brutally manhandled by his performers as Liszt has. This is especially true of the piano music which, for two generations or more, has taken a beating at the hands of large numbers of punch-drunk virtuosos, many of whom regard Liszt's music simply as a physical challenge - a sort of high-powered obstacle course over which to tone up their muscles in public. It is not often that a great composer suffers this double fate: that most of his music is never heard, and that when it is, it is wrongly heard. But it has been suffered by Liszt, and it seems to me high time matters were put right by a more intelligent interest in this wonderful and original musician.
These fascinating paragraphs are so frightfully relevant to our own time that it beggars belief they were actually written well over forty years ago. Yes, Liszt's standing has improved considerably with musicians and audience alike, but there are still many people – both performers and listeners – who entertain notions that admiration for the music of Liszt, especially his more extrovert compositions such as the Hungarian rhapsodies and the operatic paraphrases, shows a lamentable ''lack of taste''. And, boy, have you heard mindless bangers who think that Liszt's music is nothing but piano-smashing physical exercise! Sadly, Liszt's true recognition as a great composer, certainly among the greatest to come from the nineteenth century, still lies in the future. So does a mature evaluation of his piano, orchestral, vocal and choral compositions.
It is only fair to mention right away the major, and expected, caveat of the book which is made explicit by Alan Walker in the last paragraph of his preface. The editor makes no bones that the volume is primarily addressed to professional musicians. So one must expect tons of musical examples – and the layman must make allowances for ''sixths'', ''thirds'', ''augmented triads'', tons of tonalities and numerous other cryptic terms. The professional musician, or at least the amateur one who is able to read music fluently, will certainly profit from the book infinitely more than the musically illiterate layman. That said, being a prominent member of the latter group, I do guarantee that none of the chapters here is entirely without interest for those unfortunate enough to have no idea what C major is and how on earth it differs from C minor. Indeed, most of the chapters are rich in fascinating insights that may be understood by all who can read. The only other condition that a reader should fulfil is that he or she really should have a lively interest in the mind and music of Franz Liszt. Finally, I want to make it clear that the severe technical analyses are not a reason to degrade the book. For one thing, they are there by design; for another, one should be ready for them after reading the preface.
Now that I have mentioned it, I might as well say a few words about the drawbacks of the book. There are two major ones: 1) though the chapters have dated surprisingly little, all of them are dated to some degree; and 2) the treatment of Liszt's music is often rather perfunctory. Now, both of these drawbacks are to be expected considering, as already remarked, 1) the year of the first edition; and 2) the volume, to say nothing of the variety, of Liszt's output. Yet neither of them is negligible. All the same, the book makes a thoroughly compelling read for anybody to whom Franz Liszt is not just another composer. Apart from the editor's contributions, those by Messrs Sitwell, Hedley, Kentner and Searle – altogether seven chapters – are all minor masterpieces. The other four chapters are considerably less accomplished but do contain a number of illuminating points, even for the layman.
In addition to his profound preface, Alan Walker has contributed two full-scale essays, a number of very useful footnotes with cross references or alternative hypotheses, and a wonderful Register of Persons in which he has explored the relationships between Liszt and many of his contemporaries he came into contact with – in other words, who's who of the musical nineteenth century.
The first thing about Mr Walker's contributions that must be said is that they sometimes are surprisingly badly dated. It is tremendously amusing to see Mr Walker, whose biography is famous for his meticulous research, obviously taking seriously some of the most preposterous gossip ever attached to Liszt, such as the notorious accident with Lola Montez locked up in a hotel room and his having three (?!) illegitimate children by the Princess. Of course we must never forget that this was first published in 1970, more than a decade before the first volume of Mr Walker's biography (1983); at the time he hadn't even started his research. So the facts in these chapters, as anywhere in the volume, should be read with great caution.
Indeed, the book must be read only after one is intimately familiar with all three volumes of Mr Walker's magisterial biography. In the first of these he completely demolished both episodes. The novel-like story with Lola was apparently invented by Julius Kapp in his biography of Liszt, first published in 1909 and generally reliable since the major sources for it were testimonies from Liszt's numerous students. But the affair with Lola, whatever it was, had happened more than half a century before Kapp's writing of his book, and what exactly his sources were remains a mystery to the present day. As for the illegitimate children of Liszt and Caroline, all ''evidence'' about that comes from Carl Maria Cornellius, son of Liszt's close collaborator during the
years Peter Cornellius. Only he was six years old when his father died and most
probably invented the whole story in a Kapp-like manner; at least nothing
substantial has survived to support the gossip. Besides, there is no reason to
believe that, had Liszt had any illegitimate children by the woman he truly
loved and at the time intended to marry, he would not have recognised them
openly as his own. After all, he had already done so with his three children by
Marie d'Agout, all of them born out of wedlock. Weimar
That said, Alan Walker's essays are pure gems. ''Liszt's Musical Background'' explores in great detail the multifarious and far-from-simple relationships between Liszt and four composers whom he knew personally and was greatly influenced by: Czerny, Paganini, Chopin and, above all, Wagner. The first of these, himself the most famous pupil of Beethoven, was Liszt's most important teacher from whom the child learned something very important: discipline; the second had, of course, tremendous impact on developing Liszt's inhuman technique; the third showed him that piano playing is far more than bravura since poetry is an essential component too; and the last one of the quartet above is in no need of introduction, though it is worth mentioning that, despite being only two years Liszt's junior, he later became his son-in-law.
The essay is, in fact, an absorbing biographical sketch of Liszt's childhood and middle age, vastly compressed but exquisitely written. The only gentle criticism that can be levelled against Mr Walker here is that he tends to overestimate the impact of Paganini. To be sure, the Italian incarnation of the Devil (as he was famously referred to) did have an enormous influence over the young Hungarian who at the time was in deep depression after a disastrous infatuation with a beautiful creature from the wrong class. And it was Paganini, too, who inspired Liszt to start practising like crazy until he became ''Paganini of the piano'' and just about the greatest virtuoso of that instrument the world had ever seen. But to claim that this was the most important event in Liszt's life is a bit too much. When all is said and done, Liszt was first and foremost a great composer, and then – only then – a legendary performer. It is indisputable fact that the most important moment in Liszt's life was his giving up the career of a travelling virtuoso and dedicating himself completely to composition in Weimar – and that had nothing to do with Paganini (who by that time was dead anyway).
Otherwise Mr Walker's treatment is uniformly exemplary. He makes no bones that the famous close friendship between Liszt and Chopin never really existed and that it was Liszt who influenced Wagner rather than the other way round. To say nothing of the curiously one-sided nature of this friendship: Liszt giving everything and taking nothing, Wagner taking everything and giving nothing – ''it's difficult to put it less cynically'', as Mr Walker observed, though he did in fact put it less cynically than I did.
The relationship between Liszt and Chopin perhaps deserves a more detailed discussion. For here Mr Walker comes up with a brilliantly subtle analysis and a very provocative hypothesis. In a nutshell, he proposes that there was in Liszt ''a deep-rooted unconscious hostility towards Chopin (which contrasts sharply with his conscious attitude of warm friendliness)''. This seems to have lasted only while Chopin was alive; it apparently seized with his death when the Polish genius was ''no longer a rival''. This is rather startling, but Alan Walker's arguments, as usual, are not to be dismissed lightly. For one thing, Liszt composed almost all of his works in Chopinesque forms (ballades, polonaises, berceuse) shortly after Chopin's death in 1849; for another, he actually wrote a whole book about his colleague. Alan Walker finely admits in a footnote that the value of the volume is quite debatable, and so is its authorship indeed as parts were certainly written by the Princess, but the very fact that Liszt wanted to publish a book on Chopin at all speaks of dedication of unusual order. Against Mr Walker's hypothesis is the fact that the simple coincidence of Chopin's death and Liszt's retirement from the concert stage might supply a much easier explanation about the coincidence with the forms. Besides, apart perhaps from the pieces titled ''Berceuse'', which are closely related as admirably shown by Mr Walker, Liszt's ballades and polonaises could hardly have been more different than Chopin's. In conclusion of this topic, it is amusing to quote a passage from Leslie Howard's liner notes (written in 1988); it is a fairly sure guess that he refers here to Alan Walker and his theory:
Among the sillier notions of our time is a theory, propounded by a number of writers on music who will be glad to have their anonymity preserved here, that Liszt stood in awe of Chopin’s musical forms and felt unable to express himself in them until after Chopin’s death, when he immersed himself in almost all of them. A few minutes' inspection of the relevant dates shows a certain amount of plain error, and even a quick look at the music suffices to show that, whatever the inspiration, Liszt's aims were at once totally different. It just happens that Liszt’s retirement from the life of the travelling virtuoso took place only a year or so before Chopin’s death and, for all the music Liszt had written previously, he now devoted himself to correcting earlier works, developing unfinished projects and striking out into new musical forms. And in between these supposed Chopin obsequies Liszt produced the final versions of fifteen Hungarian Rhapsodies, two books of Années de pèlerinage, the Transcendental Studies, the Paganini Studies, the Sonata, several symphonic poems and much besides. Meanwhile he conducted several seasons of opera, including three of Wagner’s. So the idea of brooding at length over his departed quondam friend and releasing his debt in music of Chopinesque titles remains a barrier to comprehension.
''Liszt and the Twentieth Century'' is another powerful essay, mostly concerned with the amazing transformation in Liszt's old age (which is without precedent in the music history, Beethoven included, as pointed out by John Ogdon; see below). Mr Walker makes a very strong case that Liszt was indeed the father of modern music as he anticipated impressionism and atonality long before Debussy and Schoenberg put them to regular use. He discusses in detail many of Liszt's remarkable late pieces, most notably Les jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este from the third ''year'' of Annees de Pelerinage. This piece, ''historically one of the most important Liszt ever composed'', was written in the late 1870s but published in 1883, the previous year before Liszt actually met the young Debussy in
Much later the brilliant Frenchman would be called ''the father of modern
music'', but while listening to Liszt's vivid ''musical fountains'' Mr Walker
is surely right to wonder who the real father is; to say nothing of the
well-known fact that this very piece served as basis for Ravel's Jeux d'eau – written some thirty years
What about atonality? Now, the father of atonality is of course Schoenberg, but his first venture into it, as pointed out by Mr Walker in a footnote, happened only in 1908. Liszt was there nearly quarter of a century earlier. One of his last pieces, composed in 1885, had a most audacious title for its time: Bagatelle without Tonality (Liszt's own title, originally in French though). It is not strictly atonal, but it is surely much more daring than anything produced at the time. What's more astonishing is that Liszt's bold experiments with harmony were by no means confined to his late years. Mr Walker cites the well-known ''keyless'' opening of the Faust Symphony (1854-57), one of the first twelve-note rows in musical history – nearly seventy years before Schoenberg's ''official discovery''. A little later, in 1860, Liszt composed Der traurige Mönch, a ''Melodrama'' for voice and piano on a poem by Nicholas Lenau which may well have been the first piece in musical history entirely based on the whole-tone scale, not to mention that, yet again, anticipated Schoenberg and his ''sprechstimme''. It is not for nothing that Mr Walker finishes the chapter thus:
I am convinced that Liszt has yet to come into his own. Constant Lambert once described him as the greatest composer to come out of the nineteenth century, and while I disagree with this evaluation, I begin to see what he meant. Liszt was a tremendous historical force. He was the true father of modern music. Everything seems to have followed from him. His experiments in harmony, his audacious handling of form, his unparalleled ability to draw strange sonorities from the piano, all confirm that his is one of the most revolutionary personalities in the entire history of music.
I believe even the most ardent Lisztians would disagree with Constant Lambert, too. If modern Lisztian scholarship has thought us anything, it is that Liszt himself would have disagreed as well. After all, there are – at least – Beethoven and Wagner, either of whom was at least as revolutionary as Liszt; then there are geniuses like Schubert and Chopin, who were not only revolutionary, but who also created music with everlasting intrinsic value; and one must not forget ''traditionalists'' such as Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms, to say nothing of weird Russians such as Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff who essentially defy classification altogether.
But this is neither nor there. I was talking about this extraordinary essay by Alan Walker. Apart from Liszt's foray into the music of the future, it also contains a great insight into Liszt's personality. One of the most remarkable things about Liszt – a curious similarity with Wagner! – is that he was deeply conscious that what he was doing – breaking musical rules centuries old – was revolutionary and reactionary; he expected rejection and drank its bitter cup to the bottom. More than once did Liszt take the trouble to warn people not to perform his compositions in order to save themselves a real trouble. It is a tribute to Liszt's integrity that he endured in silence malice and vitriol which would have prompted lesser mortals to sink down to the same level of moral degradation. Apart from the well-known hatred of the anti-Wagnerian and pro-Brahmsian Hanslick, Liszt had to put up with a good deal of bashing from the puritans in the Leipzig Conservatory because of his ''impure'' harmony and, most viciously, from their counterparts in England. One of Mr Walker's fascinating footnotes is worth quoting here:
Liszt was everybody's whipping-boy. One of the most sanctimonious utterances in the history of criticism came from Sir George Macfarren, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, who piously declared that Liszt was 'working a great evil upon music'. Anxious, no doubt, to protect his students against Liszt's pernicious influence, he tried to dissuade them from listening to his music lest it corrupt them. This was an extreme measure, but, as he put it: 'Were you to preach temperance at a gin-shop door, and let your congregation taste the poison sold therein that they might know its vileness, they would come out drunkards'. This kind of twaddle, a typical piece of contemporary Liszt criticism, was endured by Liszt for quarter of a century or more.
(What's really funny is that many composers, even among the ''classicists'', were indebted to Liszt, not only without ever acknowledging it, but with taking part in the slandering. Mr Walker gives two examples from compositions by Brahms himself in which he obviously made use of a most Lisztian transformation of themes.)
In comparison, Hanslick's famous ''After Liszt, Mozart is like a soft spring breeze penetrating a room reeking with fumes'' seems almost mild. Now, many people may accuse Alan Walker – and all other contributors to this book – in what is charmingly known as ''partisanship''. I don't see it that way. For my part, sympathy with your subject, why not even affection, is not incompatible with balanced and sensible view of its nature; indeed, it is essential and far more fruitful than the crusade-like attitude. I may safely add that none of the writers here is guilty of hero-worship or goofy adulation. They do criticise Liszt's shortcomings; they simply choose not emphasise them. Rightly so, for there are so many more important things to discuss.
Nor are the contributors prone to overestimating Liszt's musical revolution. Mr Walker, for instance, says that Liszt's heavy use of the so called ''augmented triad'', rarity among the nineteenth-century composers, may well have been influenced by one C. F. Wietzmann, a Berlin musician whom Liszt knew and who, astonishingly, had published a whole book on the subject as early as 1853. As for bold attempts to abolish tonality, they may have stemmed from the lectures of Fetis on music aesthetics the young pianist attended in
as early as 1832. All the same, Liszt
remains an awesome force historically. But what about, so to say, the musical
side of his music? Mr Walker puts it succinctly: Paris
The historical Liszt, then, is of the utmost significance. And however long the argument continues about the intrinsic value of his music, there can be no doubt that its striking originality often led to the most important historical consequences. This is what Liszt meant by 'hurling a lance into the future'. In this, he was the exact opposite of his great contemporary Chopin, who could hardly have cared less about the future. It is a neat-debating point this, whether a particular composer's true significance is a 'historical' one or an 'intrinsic' one - whether, that is to say, he is more important because of what he is, or because of what he helped to bring about - and it is one which happens to be fundamental to a philosophy of musical aesthetics. I have no doubt as to what the answer to this question is, but I must admit that the essence of the 'historical' case, involving as it does the very evolution of the language of music, is undeniably strong – particularly when applied to Liszt.
Neat-debating point indeed! I fully agree with Mr Walker that music's intrinsic value is by far the more important factor, since it is this that makes for music's universal appeal, in other words: greatness. Two chief reasons for that: 1) if it weren't so, the value of music as an art would have been greatly diminished since its true power would have been accessible only to professionals; and 2) if the historical aspect were the more important one, we would have to kick out Mozart from the lines of the great composers, to say nothing of Brahms or Schubert.
But one must be very wary of oversimplification when making such sweeping generalisations. The situation really is much more complicated than that. To claim that Liszt had the melodic gift of Chopin or Schubert would be very foolish; on the other hand, to claim that his music did not – does not – have an intrinsic value would be perfectly idiotic. And we should never forget that Chopin and Schubert themselves, and Mozart too, were a bit of revolutionaries as well. Nor would it be less crass to say that a Mendelssohn or a Brahms, who virtually contributed nothing to the development of the language of music, are valueless; their music has captivated numerous hearts and it continues to do so – and this is the thing that matters.
If one wants to combine the ''historical'' and the ''intrinsic'', and if one wants to hail one composer as the greatest who ever lived, one is left with no choice for one name looms far larger than all others. Beethoven. It is true that the good old Ludwig never created a new musical form, like Wagner did with the music drama and Liszt with the symphonic poem, but he changed out of recognition almost every form that was in existence: sonata, symphony, string quartet, you name it. As far the intrinsic value of his music is concerned, his more or less unanimous universal appeal is the most convincing proof one might ask for. But this, again, is neither here nor there, and I am digressing. Again.
To finish with Mr Walker's contributions, certainly the most valuable ones, a word about his endlessly charming footnotes. These often are way more than helpful cross references, giving lots of additional information that makes the big picture much more coherent and compelling. As every great editor, Mr Walker has obviously read carefully the essays of all contributors and he sometimes effectively questions some of their assumptions. One of the finest examples occurs in the end of the chapter about the works for piano and orchestra where Mr Collet seems surprised that Liszt never wrote a set of variations like Bach's ''Goldberg'' or Beethoven's ''Diabelli'' ones, and he expresses the opinion that Liszt's ''natural bent did not lie in that direction.'' Here Mr Walker adds a superb footnote worth quoting in full:
Is there an alternative explanation? The fact that Liszt wrote fewer sets of variations than almost any other great composer in history is, of course, undeniable. Yet Liszt probably contributed more to variation technique than anybody. His method of the 'transformation of themes' dominates all his major works, and many of the minor ones too. Moreover, if one remembers the herculean labours he expended on his revisions (which very often amount to no more than another way of varying the original), to say nothing of paraphrases of other composers' works, then one begins to see that for Liszt the art of composition and the art of variation were very often one and the same thing. Is it to be wondered at that the task of writing variations in the 'official' manner made little appeal to him? His genius for creating variations had found a far more original outlet.
My absolute favourite among Mr Walker's footnotes is the one that deals with The Man Liszt (1934) by Ernest Newman, reportedly one of the most scurrilous books about Liszt ever published. I confess I have not read it, but if there is an opinion of a Lisztian scholar about it that is not damning, I have not read it either. Mr Walker is certainly no exception. He makes great fun of Newman's performance and I am pleased to quote it here in full:
This is the place, I think, to comment briefly on Newman's book which enjoys a reputation in the Liszt literature out of all proportion to its true worth. Newman's aim was an 'objective' study of Liszt's personality, an attempt to get at the real man wrapped in the cocoon of legends woven around him by the 'romantic' biographers of the nineteenth century. This 'forensic' approach was an inevitable reaction to the idealized, hero-worshipping attitude of a previous generation which had tended to sweep under the carpet the less palatable facts about the great composers. Newman's declared purpose was to see Liszt as he really was, 'warts and all', however much his ruthless exposure might pain Liszt's admirers. It needs to be said here and now that as an 'objective' study Newman's book is a dismal failure. It is written with the kind of dogged persistence associated with the policeman lurking behind corners hoping to catch a petty thief with his hand in the till. Time and again, Newman gives the impression of 'being on something' only to have his case collapse about him by the supreme unimportance of the evidence. Thus, Liszt liked cognac – so Newman writes like a man who has just signed the pledge; Liszt enjoyed female company – so Newman writes like a Trappist monk; Liszt occasionally misled people in his correspondence – so Newman becomes a high court judge. The interesting thing about Newman's book is that it starts out as an indictment against the nineteenth-century approach to biography, and it ends up as an indictment against Liszt himself. Somewhere along the line, the object of Newman's aggression was deflected on to the very thing he strove so hard to see in a 'factual' light. The result is a piece of malevolent mischief-making, not an 'objective' biography at all (I question whether an 'objective' biography, in Newman's sense, is possible or even desirable). The Man Liszt is, with respect, fascinating mainly for the light it throws on the man Newman. - Ed.
Coming from Alan Walker's pen, even as early as 1970, such devastating attack makes me eager to read Newman's book. (Needless to say, Mr Walker was of the absolutely same opinion in his later biography, but he really didn't have the space to bother with so unreliable sources as that.) The most perplexing detail in the whole case is that Newman was no nobody, nor was his character assassination some potboiler from his youth. He was one of the most eminent music critics from the first half of the twentieth century, and when The Man Liszt was first published he was 68 years old and was working on his magnum opus, a four-volume biography of Wagner still, oddly enough, highly regarded among Wagnerian scholars. Ironically, it was Alan Walker who later wrote the most objective and scholarly biography of Liszt yet available. The funniest thing is that ''the man Liszt'' who does absolutely convincingly and with great vividness emerge from these three volumes is actually a man who possessed a rare generosity of spirit, a man interested much more in woman's mind than in her flesh, a man who, save perhaps his youthful concerts, was amazingly honest. I certainly will be reading Newman's book as soon as possible. It passes belief that such rubbish could have been published by so eminent and esteemed music critic. Yet, it seems to be true. It is worth noting that Sacheverell Sitwell fully concurs with Alan Walker:
[After listing some of Liszt's titanic attempts to promote the music of Wagner and Berlioz during his
To represent, as has been done by writers including Ernest Newman, that all this was in self-aggrandizement while involved in a whirl of idle flattery, is to shut your eyes and ears and ignore all else in favour of your idol Richard Wagner.
But in reading Newman's The Man Liszt it is noticeable that almost every entry under Liszt's name in the index is used as a stick with which to hit him: 'Dual nature of; plays pranks with music; lack of discrimination; indulgence in stimulants [nine entries]; extravagance of; grand manner of; hectic life of; social inferiority of; defective education of; uncontrollable temper of; vanity of; arrogance of; his love for aristocracy; has difficulty in expressing himself; indolence of; poses of; has no male friends; wastes time in answering letters; cruelty of; advantages of ''publicity'''; etc., etc., etc. As against which, there is hardly an entry in the index of the book to his credit; and there only to his having recognized at once 'the superlative genius of Wagner, to his [Liszt's] eternal glory'.
[Discussing some of the ''evidence'' about Liszt's personality that Newman used, Mr Sitwell is positively hilarious.]
He [Liszt] had no men friends... 'is not a man of great intelligence... it is a settled system with him never to express an opinion upon anything, however unimportant it may be, so as not to compromise himself or offend anyone... and he smelt horribly of bad tobacco'... all this from the military historian von Bernhardi who was certainly no music lover, and whose observations about Liszt were based in the main on scraps of gossip picked up from the Liszt circle in Weimar, and one or two casual encounters with Liszt himself. Ernest Newman, in his book The Man Liszt as might be expected from someone setting out with the express purpose of debunking the composer, regards Bernhardi's evidence as having a crucial bearing on Liszt's character. At one point, Bernhardi was busily pumping Liszt's own bodyguard for information about him, and Newman solemnly tells us, a la Bernhardi, that these worthies 'had at that time no great belief in him as a composer'! I shall have more to say about Newman's book shortly. [See above.] The Bernhardi type is, alas, more common among human beings than men of the stature and genius of Liszt, whatever his faults, and it is wiser to take him and his achievements as against the mere opinion of a politician and Prussian military historian.
Sacheverell Sitwell is the only one among the contributors who is neither a musician nor a musical critic. He is a writer and a poet. However, among his writings there is a biography of Liszt which, judging by this essay alone, is well worth reading. Of course Mr Sitwell's facts should be taken with a solid pinch of salt, firstly because his book was first published in 1934 (though it was revised in later years), and secondly because he seems to have little idea of scholarship and original sources. Yet, being a writer, Mr Sitwell might offer us some precious insight into Liszt's mind; as a matter of fact, that’s what he does in his chapter.
''Liszt: A Character Study'' is more like a short summary of biographical facts, rather than an exclusively psychological portrait. Despite a certain exaggeration here and there, it makes a highly entertaining and not a little illuminating read. Mr Sitwell was well aware of many things which today, thanks to the high-quality Listzian scholarship of the last few decades, may seem commonplace, but this was certainly not the case in 1970. Examples here range from Liszt's improving the original sources for some of his opera paraphrases (a truly advanced notion for its time!) to Liszt's considerable artistic stature not being tarnished by whatever personal faults he might have had (a truly sacrilegious notion for its time!). If Mr Sitwell had expressed all that in his earlier biography, written in a vastly anti-Lisztian climate, his observations must indeed have been extraordinarily prescient. On the whole, he draws a very sympathetic portrait of Liszt that may be read with pleasure and profit by every Lisztian.
One of Mr Sitwell's most perceptive passages is his analysis of the unprecedented, hysterical fame that Liszt enjoyed during his virtuoso career. Though the amazing abilities of the young Hungarian surely were the primary reason, a great deal of the frenzy may well have been due to the completely unsophisticated audiences he played for. Mr Sitwell's hypothesis that this was a one-off phenomenon due mostly to the novelty of such concerts in general, and the grand piano in particular, is very plausible indeed. (The fact that Liszt deeply impressed at one time or another virtually every serious musician of his time – from Robert and Clara Schumann to Berlioz and Wagner – is another story that has nothing to do with his fame as a virtuoso.) It is a tribute to the author's integrity that he makes no bones about Liszt's famous histrionics during these years, but neither does he condemn them:
The grand piano of the thirties and forties of the last century was a comparatively new invention; and the public, in so many of the towns where he performed on his concert tours, was unused to music. Amateurs, who were not so few in number, may well have been of far wider musical knowledge and sophistication than we would anticipate; but the audience in general would be astonished and dazzled by a Fantasia on 'William Tell' or 'Lucia di Lamermoor', not to mention Liszt's own, and favourite warhorse, his Galop Chromatique. They may have been used to 'arrangements' of overtures and airs from operas, but not to Liszt's operatic Reminiscences or Paraphrases, the best of which are works of art in their own right transcending and improving upon their originals.
It is not to be denied that during these years of musical notoriety Liszt may have developed tricks and mannerisms of an annoying or aggravating kind. Facial expressions of disdain, of lofty sentiment, of selfless aspiration, and so on, may have irritated one part of his audience as much as they elevated the other. It is to be remembered that an unsophisticated public, altogether new to music, is nowhere to be found in our time except perhaps among the demonstrably music-loving penguins of
again can there be such opportunity, even facility, to dazzle and hypnotize
audience; a golden age for two or three lions of the arena, to culminate in the
series of historical recitals of Anton Rubinstein in 1886, at which cyclopean
events the members of the public actually hung from windows-ledges and clung to
the chandeliers. Paderewsky was the last performer to be acclaimed with such
transports, now only accorded to pop-singers.
The passage above amply demonstrates both the best and the worst in Mr Sitwell's writing. On the one hand, his attitude to Liszt and his insight into his legendary fame, or notoriety if you like, is very shrewd indeed. On the other hand, his factual inaccuracy is disturbing; if the ''hanging from windows-ledges'' and the ''clinging to chandeliers'' may be accepted as a mere dramatisation of reality, that is an instance when Mr Sitwell's instincts for writing fiction got the better of him, his mentioning of ''Fantasia'' on Rossini's opera William Tell goes into the realms of the fabulous; Liszt did transcribe with dazzling brilliance the famous overture but, so far as we know today, he never wrote anything based on themes from that work which could be called ''Fantasia''.
As for Liszt's exaggerated facial expressions during those heady times, a lot of disparagement has been lavished on him because of them. Mr Sitwell is a wonderful exception. He knows perfectly well, as every Lisztian does, that this ''performance within the performance'' was done solely to win the audience's adulation, and he understands that Liszt succumbed to the temptation of winning completely his highly unsophisticated public. After all, Liszt was human. The real proportions of his genius, or, to put it more accurately, the real strength of his character, is revealed when we remember that, at the age of 35, he did willingly forsake all that superficial glitter in order to devote himself to composition, promotion of the music of other composers, and making
musical centre. Weimar
The last of the general chapters is the one by Artur Hedley, a ''leading authority on Chopin'' as I am told in the notes on the contributors. It makes a fantastic read with tons of thought-provoking reflections. Mr Hedley's analysis of Liszt's virtuoso years is especially insightful. As it seems – and as always indeed – the complete picture is far more complex that it seems. We are well-advised, for example, to ponder his claim that ''Liszt might find himself painfully 'cut down to size' in the presence of a Richter or a Horowitz''. Echoing Mr Sitwell's observation about the almost total lack of sophistication in Liszt's audiences, Mr Hedley perceptively observes that their ''innocent ears'' might have been ''easily bewitched by anything noticeably outside the range of the domestic pianist.''
Nor did Liszt get away without any serious criticism from some very fine musicians. One of the most charming historical sources Mr Hedley quotes is a scathing review of Liszt's Berlin concerts in 1841 by Mendelssohn himself, no less; apparently Liszt played Bach, Handel, Mozart and Weber ''in such a lamentably imperfect style, so uncleanly, so ignorantly that I could have listened to many an average pianist with more pleasure''. Even allowing for some disingenuousness on Mendelssohn's side, as he was a member of the highly conservative
circle, Felix was
not a man to get so angry for nothing, especially on artistic grounds.
Therefore, it is very likely that at least sometimes during his legendary
virtuoso years Liszt did go too far with his intentions to stupefy his
audiences and he probably played some of the classics in abominably showy
But this is just one part of the story, not even a full half of it actually. Many a sharp musical mind all over Europe – from Chorley to Stasov – were bowled over by Liszt's playing, not so much by its technical brilliance as by its subtlety and sensitivity. Schumann was impressed as never before or since; Wagner himself, a man seldom given to adulation and incapable of artistic compromise, was totally lost in hero-worship after hearing Liszt's interpretations of Beethoven's music, which he, remarkably, described as ''re-creation''. Even the greatest pianists of that time, Tausig and Rubinstein included, openly acknowledged Liszt's supremacy at the keyboard. All that body of evidence strongly suggests that Liszt at the piano, whatever his technical resources (they were probably formidable), must have been, quite simply, a unique experience. As Mr Hedley puts it, in a rather pleasantly purple prose:
The absolute mastery of every difficulty, the electric excitement, the caressing lyricism, the suggestion of 'things beyond tears' and the sensation of being in the presence of heaven-sent genius – these were things he alone could offer. A duller and machine-dominated 'civilization' (if that is the right word) can only look back with regret and envy.
Before mentioning Mr Hedley's equally fine treatment of Liszt the teacher, it might be of interest to note his demolishing the famous myth about Liszt the piano smasher. That the great pianist left a good many wrecks on a good many stages is, of course, a historical fact – but one that makes no sense outside of its historical context. The main reason for the ''trail of wreckage'' which Liszt left between
Petersburg and Constantinople is
that he very often played on ''flimsy wood-and-wire boxes'' which had nothing
to do with a modern Steinway. Mr Hedley is undoubtedly right to say that
anybody who breaks a string on modern concert grand has absolutely no right to
get away with ''Liszt used to do the same''.
As for Liszt the teacher, he was a force to be reckoned with, as always with him. Among the 400 or so young pianists who had, or had not, the right to call themselves his pupils, there were many worthless creatures of mediocre, at best, talent who were only too eager to exploit Liszt's apparently endless generosity. But there also were many pianists of stupendous talent who never before or after had so amazing an experience as when Liszt gave them some instructions as regards interpretation (never technique) and especially when he himself played. Mr Hedley wisely quotes a lot from the famous book of Amy Fay, an American pupil who left one of the most valuable accounts of Liszt's master classes in his late years.
The major part of the book is of course occupied by the nine chapters entirely dedicated to different parts of Liszt's vast output. ''The Interpretation of Liszt's Music'' is the only exception, such as it is, for it deals with some of the principles of interpretation in general and playing Liszt's works in particular. The chapter by Alan Walker concerned with the late pieces I have already discussed; the rest eight chapters were written by six different people, some of them internationally renowned musicians. The contributions of two people – Louis Kentner and Humphrey Searle – stand out as they are indeed outstanding; they are to be discussed in great detail below. The rest are all mixed bags and will therefore be dealt with in a more superficial way. It must be said that, though often unpleasantly perfunctory or monstrously technical, none of these ''second-rate'' chapters entirely lacks points of interest. They will be mentioned in due time.
The Hungarian-British pianist Louis Kentner (1905-1987) has been a wonderful discovery for me. In addition to brilliant and perceptive writer, I have discovered a great pianist who plays Liszt with stupendous virtuosity rigorously and uncompromisingly put in service to music – an almost unheard-of phenomenon in the history of Lisztian interpretation, at least that part of it which can be heard on records with sufficiently high quality to be appreciated; to say nothing of the grand Romantic freedom and expression of Mr Kentner's of playing which, alas, is something unknown to modern virtuosos. But it is not Mr Kentner's wizardry at the keyboard that is under scrutiny here. It is his superb writing style, a beautiful combination of wisdom, poetry, lucidity and wit, especially considering that English was not his first language. By the way, Mr Kentner even has the honour to be among those who actually have enriched the English language; in his case this is a charming description of the Mephistophelian elements in the music of the great composer: ''Diaboliszt''.
Mr Kentner's first essay, though one of the most important in the book, is the less interesting of his two contributions. It is heavily illustrated with musical examples, of course, and accomplished pianists may well find here much to reflect upon. The only thing one could accuse Mr Kentner of is a slightly perfunctory treatment of some of Liszt's most important original works for solo piano, such as his magisterial Années de pèlerinage. One should, however, bear in mind that such treatment is all but inevitable. In a very limited space Mr Kentner had to cover a number of sublime masterpieces: the aforementioned Années, which consists of no fewer than 26 pieces, the twelve Transcendental Etudes, the six Paganini Etudes, the majestic Sonata in B minor, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (10 pieces, including some of Liszt's most famous ones such as Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude and Funérailles), the two Ballades, the two Polonaises, and even the hyper-popular Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Many of these underwent revisions and exist in several versions.
Having said all that, I am going now to do the unspeakable: to quote extensively from Mr Kentner’s first essay. For his writing is full of perceptive observations, striking parallels and poetic descriptions which are really worth quoting. Besides, on top of all that, Mr Kentner suggests a very controversial hypothesis: Liszt was not, as commonly referred, the most Romantic of all Romantic composers, but quite the opposite: an anti-Romantic one. While I completely disagree with Mr Kentner here – I still see Liszt as the proverbial Romantic, and Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms as the nineteenth-century classicists – it is interesting to reflect on his argumentation. The layman must, of course, skip the numerous musical examples in this chapter, but he will surely do well to read carefully what is written between them:
It is tempting, when surveying Liszt's piano works until the end of the Weimar period, to try to impose upon them some sort of central tendency, a common denominator, something that is, to a greater or lesser degree, characteristic of them all. Tempting but, alas, almost impossible. It is, of course, true that are all redolent of a strong personality, permeated by an unmistakable aroma of what can only be described as Lisztian culture, constructed wilfully but firmly within the framework of Lisztian pianism, of Lisztian harmony, in all of which the urge to innovate and reform is sometimes stronger than the primary creative urge. But when we have noted all this we have said nothing that could not be said of half-a-dozen other composers with equal truth. Nor is it the whole truth.
What, then, if anything, is that elusive common factor, revealed only to the closest scrutiny, which makes the whole of his work, despite all its proliferation and diversity, seem of a piece? I think it is the gradual breaking away from the Romantic Movement which enslaved Liszt in his youth, from which he appears to have entirely freed himself in his old age. This battle, this wandering in deserts and oases, with a final glimpse of the Promised Land, the twentieth century, seems to me the whole story of his middle-period piano music.
But what was the Romantic Movement? Its roots were essentially literary (in the same way that Debussy borrowed the then novel philosophy of Impressionism from the visual arts); its aim was the revival of lofty ideals – beauty, originality, nobility – which seemed to be lost, after Beethoven’s death, in a welter of worthless, pedantic, philistine stuff, or in frankly meretricious ministrations to a depraved public taste. The Romantics represented a rebellion. They were conscious of specific, well-defined objectives (unlike the Classics), and Schumann became the prime torch-bearer of the movement. He was a great composer of small-scale music.
[This is by far the best description of Schumann in a single sentence I have ever read. In the very next paragraph, Mr Kentner shows that he is quite familiar with Chopin as well.]
Chopin's influence on Liszt was enormous. He never ceased to admire Chopin's aristocratic, poised, meticulous and reserved artistry, the perfect balance of form and content, a perfection comparable only with the classical mastery of Mozart, and yet romantic by reason of its wholly sentiment-inspired lyricism and its self-imposed discipline of the small form as the best means of expression for that lyricism. Add to this an ardent nationalist feeling (with French culture overlaying it), the use of folk melodies, the extraordinarily sensitive and single-minded exploration of keyboard sonority – and you have some of the things Chopin had in common with Liszt, his friend who loved him but who got only ambivalent feelings from Chopin in return for his friendship. Then there was Schumann. In a somewhat cool appraisal of the 'Transcendental' Studies (1838 version) Schumann had compared them unfavourably with one of the fifteen-year-old Liszt's first attempts at composition (first version of the Studies), piously complaining that Liszt, the adolescent, had apparently not yet achieved perfect piece of mind. ('Schumann, the Davidsbündler', commented Busoni, 'recommending peace of mind!')
The German Romantic revolution had, by about 1835, run its course. It had won the day, and its protagonists, safely ensconced in snug positions as critics, teachers, conductors, were settling down to a comfortable enjoyment of the fruits of their richly deserved success. Schumann, an undisputed arbiter of taste, by virtue of his critical sharp-sightedness, dispensed good and bad marks in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (where he had hailed Chopin as genius). He was also trying to inflate himself into a 'big' composer from a merely 'great' one, a composer of symphonies, oratorios, operas, in which enterprise he was doomed to failure. Mendelssohn, near-genius but no fully committed Romantic, made perhaps a more valuable contribution than anyone by re-discovering and giving model performances of the then forgotten choral masterpieces of Bach. The affiliated members of the group (Chopin, Berlioz and later Brahms) were all successful, recognized, admired, each without a rival in his own field. Into this snug little world burst Liszt, an ardent young Prometheus, ready to draw fire down from Heaven; but everyone else was quite cozy sitting by their own firesides, using matches and plywood to keep them going (at a moderate heat). Who wanted a Prometheus? Who wanted fire from Heaven?
Soon there was evidence, too, that Liszt was going his own way, not content to compose 'nice' piano pieces of the 'Blumenstück', 'Nachtstück', 'Romanze' type, or simple effusions of a modestly emotional kind often called 'Intermezzo' or 'Capriccio'. Indeed, the brutal harshness of the B minor Sonata must have come as a stunning blow to its dedicatee Schumann – almost as a declaration of war to the whole tight little world of bourgeois romanticism.
The coolness of the Romantics towards Liszt was caused (if the foregoing argument is accepted) not by philistinism or a monstrous misunderstanding but by an unfailing instinct that made the correct diagnosis: that Liszt, though a genius, was not flesh of their flesh, not blood of their blood. Liszt's own reactions? His references to Mendelssohn and Brahms, though not unkind, show a marked lack of enthusiasm. These and some contemptuous remarks on what he called 'Leipzigerisch' in Schumann's work, are indications of some bitterness or hurt pride caused no doubt by the rejection of his work; a bitterness and pride (however skilfully disguised by courtly manners), which could have become a force compelling him to turn, first, to new gods (Wagner) and, in due course, to become anti-Romantic, a 'modern' composer – one who put the stamp of his personality on our own century.
I want to examine in some detail the chief works of this middle period, this period of transformation, and see to what extent, if any, they are in line with the theory here propounded.
When Beethoven improvised, the result was a sonata. When Chopin or Schumann set out to construct a sonata form, it tended to sound like an improvisation.
Form must remain the composer's greatest problem; it is not the inventing of themes which makes a composer, nor the harmonic imagination, however daring or interesting, but the ability to build, to construct architectural designs in music, great or small, long or short, and with whatever kind of emotional appeal. Composers who set their faces against the concept of 'technique', who proclaim loudly that form is nothing, expression everything, are either master builders like Beethoven and mutatis mutandis Liszt, supreme technicians who can afford to despise technique and turn their whole attention to expression (perhaps not realizing that there is no very clear dividing line) – or else are the amateurish kind of composer who sees the creation of a symphony in terms of inventing a few good tunes and stringing them together.
Liszt's temperament was certainly not analytical, but intuitive; yet he was conscious of the exigencies of craftsmanship. How could it have been otherwise, since he had spent years creating and perfecting a new kind of piano technique? He made no bones about the many hours daily spent in practising. There is much evidence of revising and rewriting compositions which did not satisfy him (which is the equivalent of the instrumentalist's practising, transferred to the creative sphere); and if it is true that he spoke contemptuously of 'form for its own sake', he was no less anxious to master classical form than any other composer, and did in fact master it.
[It has never occurred to me to equal a performer's practising of a piece with a composer's revising of a composition. Compelling parallel.]
It is fascinating to examine Liszt's ever-changing ways of approach to the sonata. Fascinating because here is one of the clues that show him to be a very different sort of artist from those Romantics who simply received the sonata form as handled down by Beethoven and Schubert, with whatever modifications and freedoms that implied, and tried to 'fill' it, like an old bottle, with some kind of new wine, with the ardent, glowing, sentimental, small-scale, deeply felt outpourings of their German souls. But this was a battle lost before it was begun. Form and content being indivisible in the ultimate work of art, a perfect fusion is not possible unless the one determines the other in a process of mutual fertilization in which the component elements become almost indistinguishable. Form, in short, must be an epidermis, not a garment.
The B minor Sonata is without doubt Liszt's pianistic masterpiece. […] Along with the 'Faust' Symphony, the 'Christus' Oratorio, and the great organ Fantasy and Fugue on Ad nos, it bears witness not only to Liszt's extraordinary creative energy, not only to his ability to paint a great self-portrait but, also, it shows him concerned with things beyond the merely personal, things of metaphysical, or even cosmic, import. In this, as in other things, Liszt breaks away from that Romantic self-limitation which put the microcosmos of individual emotion and its precise expression above any other aim of the artist; indeed, he reaches out towards late Beethoven, and makes the boldest bid made by any nineteenth-century composer to continue where Beethoven had left off. The importance of the B minor Sonata has to be restated here because it has suffered adverse criticism even from Lisztians. Oddly enough, its towering greatness has been generally, if grudgingly, admitted by anti-Lisztians over the last century, though it is a pity that so many virtuoso performers have misinterpreted it into a kind of undistinguished piece of fireworks to demonstrate their muscular prowess, instead of the searing, searching, fiery self-revelation that it really is.
[I wish Mr Kentner had given some examples of those Lisztians who have criticised the Sonata; it is difficult for me to believe that anybody who genuinely cares for Liszt and his music may dislike his Sonata. Those who don't care at all about either are, of course, quite another matter. But Mr Kentner's remark about the tough guys on the keyboard is frightfully relevant to our present times.]
[Mr Kentner's dramatic programmatic explanations of the Sonata may violate Liszt's eloquent silence on the matter, but they are rather compelling nonetheless – and much more sensible than most of the others.]
Before the curtain goes up there is the Prologue. It differs greatly from the Classical introduction. The Classics used the introduction to generate tension, rouse expectancy, generally set the stage for things to come. But they did not give away what the drama was going to be about. (Only Beethoven occasionally felt the need to strengthen the psychological motivations of his Introductions by re-introducing fragments of them at later stages of the work, as in the 'Pathetique' Sonata.) Generally, Classical introductions are thematically unconnected with the main body of the work, sometimes almost detachable. Schumann and Brahms follow the Classics in this respect, with few exceptions. Liszt, in his Prologue, passes three of the main Dramatis Personae in review […] He shows them in their Urform as if to say: 'These are the characters who will be acting upon the stage; they will cry, laugh, suffer, live and die, all according to the laws of their natures' – rather in the style of Commedia dell'Arte.
[One of Mr Kentner's most precious passages concerns his fine defence of the often deplored by many people – myself included – grand manner, namely facial expressions and the like during performance.]
One often hears sneering references to the 'grand manner', and presumably what is meant by this is the nineteenth-century image of the long-haired etiolated-looking virtuoso who has many cheap tricks up his sleeve to make up for the absence of solid worth. In a strangely ambivalent book on Liszt, Walter Beckett makes half-mocking, half-serious allusion to the 'ardent virtuoso, head thrown back, his face responding to the ecstatic fullness of the music'. […] Leaving aside as irrelevant the atavistic British dislike of 'pose' or 'attitudes', there is nothing reprehensible, or comic, in the grand manner, if by this is meant that the artist, under the stress of great emotion, is not in complete control of his facial expression, or the movements of his body – as long as the performance is commensurate with the manner in grandeur and emotional impact. No sound judge will find anything funny in such overspill of emotion, unless the line
The poet's eye in sacred frenzy rolling
were considered funny too.
[Here Mr Kentner inserts a charming footnote that gives a very plausible explanation about Liszt's perpetual lack of success in
. I quote it complete.] England
It is a remarkable fact that the English, so tolerant towards eccentricity of behaviour in every other walk of life or art, discourage any tendencies in musicians; and this view is reflected in the way English musicians do in fact behave. Compare, for instance, the posturing flamboyance of a Lord Byron or Tennyson (great and wonderful poets both) with the sober, gentlemanly ways of Sir Edward Elgar, who all but disclaimed being a musician at all. It is not difficult to see a connection between this trait of the English national character, and Liszt's marked lack of success in
[Mr Kentner's interpretation of the Sonata in Mephistophelian terms, so to say, is no less stimulating, though Alan Walker points out in a fine footnote that, the rich history of such interpretations notwithstanding, he can't think of a single such reference by Liszt himself. Still, Mr Kentner's poetic vision is rather remarkable for somebody concerned with such ''abstract'' art like music.]
The fugue here stands in place of customary Development (Beethoven did the same thing in op. 101 and elsewhere) and it must be regarded as the Mephistophelian part of Liszt's self-portrait: the spirit of mockery, of negation and savage distorting caricature. This is done with so much elegance and skill that one suspects the Abbe of being perhaps a little more in sympathy with the Devil than with God.
It leads to the biggest of all climaxes, perhaps, in piano literature. The Grandioso reappears like a burning
the skies. [Musical example of the passage, in fff.] A sudden silence falls (this must be very
long!) and the still small voice of the Andante sostenuto is heard singing a
heart-rendingly beautiful epilogue. Certainly some of the greatest music Liszt
ever wrote is on these two pages to which no analysis can do justice, and only
very few performances.
Liszt was a devout Catholic: he feared God, but he loved the Devil. Of the many and diverse personalities that co-existed in him none was more fascinating than the 'Diaboliszt' (if the pun be allowed).
[Mr Kentner's description of the First Mephisto Waltz and the poem by Nicholas Lenau that served as an inspiration and a program is worth quoting, for it rivals the celebrated account of Humphrey Searle.]
The first Mephisto Waltz (or 'The Dance in the Village Inn') is also an orchestral work, the second of 'Two Episodes from Lenau's Faust'. To the eternal shame of orchestral societies everywhere the work is hardly ever heard in this version, although the piano transcription is popular enough with pianists. The half-epic, half-dramatic poem describes how Faust and Mephistopheles stray into a village inn where wedding festivities are in full swing; how Mephistopheles (a jovial enough character, hardly the embodiment of Evil) seizes a violin from one of the band and, by the demoniacal fire of his playing whips the dancers into a frenzy. Faster and faster gets the dance, more and more unbridled the dancers; Faust finds himself a beautiful wench with whom he dances out into the open, followed by the sound of Mephisto's violin, into the wood where only the sound of the nightingale's song is heard and where the couple is 'swallowed by the roaring sea of lust'
Liszt's music follows the story closely enough to be described as 'programme music'. But the purely musical excitement of the work is enough to fascinate the listener, whether or not he is familiar with the poem. If the Mephisto of the poem does not quite convince the reader of his evil nature, the Mephisto of Liszt's music will, for it does in fact express Evil (if such a thing is possible); the marvellous opening, with its piling-up of perfect fifths on top of one another – the Devil tuning up his fiddle – is surely one of the most daring things created by any pre-Bartok composer.
[Mr Kentner's analysis of the ''Transcendental Studies'' is also admirable. It starts with a tantalising speculation.]
Liszt, in his later years, treated with royal contempt all tendencies on part of his pupils to put showmanship and manual dexterity above truth of expression. 'Do you think I care how fast you can play octaves?' he once thundered at an unfortunate pupil who displayed this special aptitude a trifle too flamboyantly. Was there, perhaps, an element of self-castigation in this outburst of Liszt's, a guilty recollection of his own early days as a travelling virtuoso. Perhaps.
The important thing about the Twelve 'Transcendental' Studies is not that they are concerned with technical problems. It is that they constitute one work, rather than a set of twelve separate pieces.
If the original purpose of these 'exercises' was technical – and it might well have been when the fifteen-year-old Liszt composed the first, naively primitive version – this was lost sight of, undoubtedly because of his own technique had reached such proportions that its further development ceased to interest him. What did not cease to interest him, however, was the vitality of the subject-matter, and he realized its potentialities in a frighteningly difficult version (1838) verging on the unplayable. This was later simplified, and the result was the final version (1851) as we know and use it today. In this last version Liszt added a descriptive or poetic title to most of the Studies – and what else are these titles but another simplification, an aid offered by the composer for easier access to the character of the piece?
[Later Mr Kentner rightly reminds us that those titles came much later than the composition and in no way can they be used as ''programmatic''. I venture the bold suggestion that with some obvious exceptions – such as the aforementioned ''Two Episodes from Lenau's Faust'' – this is true about pretty much all of Liszt so-called ''programmatic'' works. Their ''programs'' may or may not give a hint to their interpretation and understanding, but any sensitive performer or listener should be able to do nicely without them.]
[Mr Kentner is very witty when he discusses the famous fourth etude of the cycle, Mazeppa, but his claim that Liszt ''transcribed'' it for orchestra is annoying nonsense. The two pieces are really very different; they merely share one common theme.]
This last piece has the stature of a symphonic poem; and it did, in fact, later become one, Liszt transcribing it for orchestra and welding the Mazeppa legend onto the result. Mazeppa was a Cossack chieftain whose enemies, according to myth, tied him to a wild horse which galloped across plains, rivers and mountains until it finally collapsed from exhaustion – not only horses collapse under the strains of Mazeppa! – and he is eventually released by the Cossacks and leads them in a great uprising.
Wilde Jagd, the next Study, is no way to be regarded as 'programme music', nor is King Arthur’s ghostly chase what this piece is 'about', except as an aid to those, listeners and performers alike, whose imagination is not immediately fired by the music alone. It should be remembered again that the 'Transcendental' Studies, in their first and second versions, were composed and published years before the poetic titles were superimposed. […] Wilde Jagd is a mixture of savagery and subtlety, and requires an interpreter whose temperament has both these elements to a marked.
[Unfortunately, most interpreters completely lack the second element, thus transforming the study into a cheap showpiece of extremely fast banging.]
[Wonderful flight of poetic imagination.]
Harmonies du Soir is like an impressionist canvas, so vividly painted that it is as if one hears not only the sounds but also smells the perfumes drifting across the warm evening air. There is an impression of bells softly ringing from distant spires.
[Superbly concise and powerful description of an extraordinary piece.]
Il Penseroso is austere, sombre, devoid of pianistic embellishment – not a note too many. It is a masterpiece of terseness and yet, somehow, in its two pages so much of tragic import is said that no one could possibly call the piece a 'miniature'. It is more like a fragment of some vast non-existent whole, like a piece from a larger diamond, yet perfect in itself. Liszt headed the score with a quotation from Michelangelo: 'I am thankful to sleep, and more thankful to be made of stone. So long as injustice and shame remain on earth, I count it a blessing not to see or feel; so do not wake me – speak softly!'
[Almost about every piece he mentions, Mr Kentner has something interesting to say, often interspersed with priceless insights into Liszt's mind.]
The jaunty little Canzonetta del Salvator Rossa (painter, bandit, and – according to the evidence of this attractive tune – musician) is simply but effectively harmonized, not too difficult to play, and makes a rewarding concert piece or an encore off the beaten track.
Although the three Petrarch Sonnets are among Liszt's better known works, it is not generally realized that they are transcriptions and that in their original form they were songs. Liszt here shows himself to be a past master in the art of transcription, an art which, even when applied to his own music no less than to that of other composers, he clearly recognized as being an art of re-creation, not just a matter of re-arranging material to suit another medium. […] I have no doubt that this is the right way, and in accordance with Liszt's detestation of pedantry.
The poems of which the Petrarch Sonnets are settings are quoted by way of preface in each case, not so much to help the player over any difficulties of prosody or phrasing, as to acquaint him with the underlying mood of each sonnet; but I find that the music by itself is so eloquent that it can hardly be misunderstood, even without Petrarch's words.
Mr Kentner finishes this tremendous essay with a touching defence of Liszt's rhapsodies which have been accused ever since they were published more than 150 years ago on three main points: 1) that Liszt used non-original material, folklore or not; 2) that this material is of doubtful authenticity and value; and 3) that Liszt's treatment is way too virtuosic. Mr Kentner makes an excellent case that all three accusations are really nonsensical, deeply rooted in prejudice and bigotry.
Mr Kentner's second essay – ''The Interpretation of Liszt's Music'' – is pretty much like the first one: a masterpiece. Consider the magisterial opening paragraphs:
'Architecture is frozen music.' Do not let us quarrel for moment with this dictum, trite and banal though it may seem. Let us accept it, for the sake of the argument which follows. For I would like to postulate that the reverse is also true: music is melted architecture. To know where every note belongs, to create a structure exactly corresponding to what the composer put down on paper, is one thing; to make it communicate, speak eloquently, naturally and flowingly, even to move us to tears, to make this 'form', this 'architecture' loose all rigidity, all static existence in space, in other words to 'melt' into something that happens spontaneously in time – that is another. And it is, incidentally, what 'interpretation' means. And yet the two things must go hand in hand if we want it to be complete. An artist too exclusively concerned with architecture will tend to turn all performances into intellectual exercises, chilly and chilling, stiff and heartless. At the opposite extreme, while it must be admitted that animal warmth and spontaneity can compensate for many failings, it is equally certain that it will sooner or later make itself felt in many unpleasing ways: untidiness, false notes, insufficient attention to detail, slurred indistinct diction – these are not so much technical shortcomings as generally accepted.
Liszt, who repudiated classical form in theory but could never quite break away from it in practice, did certainly put expression first, form second. In ranging ourselves firmly on his side, we come up against one of the linch-pins of academic conservatism. When one listens to the dreary, soulless, expressionless execution of the classics – and 'execution' is the mot juste in these cases – so often perpetrated in the name of 'classical style', one wonders if there ever was any composer, classical or romantic, who liked to hear his music murdered in the way so current in our age. 'Just play the notes, strictly in time, observe the dynamic markings, and no nonsense.' How often have I heard this admonition addressed by pedants of the older generation, who should have known better, to young students guilty of liking their music with plenty of nonsense – a deplorable feature of modern music teaching when the unimaginative and untalented do their level best to strangle musicianly instinct and spontaneous feeling in the minds of the young. 'But', someone might object, 'this is all very well, but it does more or less apply to all music. In what way is the Liszt style different from the classical style? Is there such a thing as a Liszt style?'
It is obvious that an artist who has been variously called mountebank, wizard, Gypsy, priest, revolutionary, snob, Casanova, saint – and all these with some degree of justification at various times – must have expressed all these aspects of his personality in his artistic output. From this follows a bewildering diversity of styles. We need many keys to open many doors. (Indeed, the naïve urge for uninhibited self-expression which uncritically reveals the shoddier elements of this personality, as well as the lofty ones, refutes the accusation of insincerity. An insincere artist would not have shown himself to the world in all his nakedness.)
Mr Kentner's clarity of exposition and lucidity of expression are so great that I really have nothing to add. It would be tedious even to list all matters of enormous importance he touches upon in the above quote: from art and the essence of interpretation all the way to the often-repeated insincerity of Liszt's artistic expression. Here Mr Kentner's argument is actually devastating to all anti-Lisztians who have foamed at their mouths using words like ''vulgar'', ''bombastic'' or ''meretricious'' to describe some of Liszt's most extrovert compositions, most notably the Hungarian rhapsodies and the operatic paraphrases. The major premise of those Liszt-haters is, of course, that Liszt himself was a ''vulgar'', ''bombastic'' and ''meretricious'' personality. But how could he express all that in his music if he was an insincere composer? In contrast, Lisztians speak of things like ''overdose of rhetoric'' or ''lapses from greatness”, and they take both with a smile or a shrug. There is so much worthy stuff to bother with, why waste time with the very occasional lapse into mediocrity? After warning Liszt specialists not to specialise too much by playing exclusively Liszt – an absurd thing to do considering that no other composer in history ever showed a greater interest in the music of other composers – Mr Kentner continues his compelling discourse on the subtle, elusive and more or less indescribable art of interpretation.
It is a popular simplification that the composer creates music and the instrumentalist carries out the composer's intentions. Actually, he does far more. First of all, a composer does not create music, he only writes a score. A score is not music; it becomes music only when it becomes sound.
Modern criticism tends to adopt a rather rigid view on the accurate observance of the printed text, perhaps as a natural and understandable reaction to the laxity shown by the older generation of artists in this respect. Certainly the classics (especially Beethoven) should be treated with the respect due to their often carefully-arrived-at text; but too much pedantry is to be deplored. Liszt himself was tolerant to the point of negligence – as long as the spirit of the music was there.
Perhaps the most important point in the philosophy of interpretation is that of the unity of composer and performer, because it implies total identification, whether by natural affinity or voluntary merging of personalities. Any 'critical' or 'objective' attitude would be fatal and is therefore inadmissible; cool detachment kills all possibility of communication with an audience, antagonistic or friendly. Even worthless music can and must be played with total conviction; indeed, the more worthless the music, the more conviction is needed. The late James Agate used to say that it was easy to act Shakespeare; but to put across, say, a French farce needed a real actor.
The German language has a subtle distinction unknown in English: a 'Musiker' is simply a musician (he could be a composer, conductor, instrumentalist or singer); a 'Musikant', however, is one who is not, strictly speaking, a concert artist but more like a entertainer mainly concerned with the lighter kind of music, a player in a band, a Gypsy fiddler, a bar pianist – all these come under the heading 'Musikant'. Not using the term in any pejorative sense, it could mean a musician not spoilt by too much erudition (or too little knowledge), ardent, instinctive, earthly, untamed, a savage with savage rhythm still in his blood, and a natural-born aptitude for his instrument – the Hungarian Gypsy or the Negro jazz player for instance – the naturalistic yet sophisticated 'Musikant'. Now, if all Musiker had a little of the Musikant in their make-up, the world of music would be a better place to live in.
The rest of the chapter is dedicated to matters more comprehensible to pianists such as technique, phrasing, rhythm, pedalling, etc. In between, of course, the fountain of Mr Kentner's wisdom never really runs dry. His favourite maxim as regards difficulty of pieces, for instance, is very much worth considering: ''there are no difficult pieces, for a piece is either impossible or it is easy''. He also demolishes some myths, like the one that Liszt's music requires big hands or some kind of incredible, ''transcendental'' technique (though occasionally it does indeed). Mr Kentner's charming sense of humour can often make a point with a startling clarity. My favourite example here is his ''case of defence'', just by the way, of Liszt's transcriptions and paraphrases, generally considered to be inferior pastiche. Mr Kentner's argument? ''After all, Bach spent half his life writing arrangements; that should be good enough for lesser mortals.''
In conclusion of Mr Kentner's contributions, I must say that his great insight and perspicacity are occasionally – very occasionally – marred by certain naivety, not to say inanity. The major examples here are his comparison between Liszt's transformation of themes and the Wagnerian Leitmotiv. Here it is:
It is an interesting fact about the Lisztian 'metamorphosis' technique that it is opposite to what Wagner did with his Leitmotiv. Wagner invents a short, characteristic, extremely meaningful and plastic motif, attaches it to a person, a feeling, a thought, a situation or even an inanimate object (like Siegfried's sword), almost like a tag, visible from a long way off, and whenever the dramatic situation requires it the Leitmotiv is sounded in a virtually unchanged form – admirable though perhaps a little over-simplified device for driving a point home, in case the goings-on both on and off stage should be a bit obscure in themselves. A Leitmotiv then, is broadly speaking always the same and always means the same. Liszt handles his motifs differently; he twists and bends them, gives them different meanings (sometimes diametrically opposed ones); they appear in slow or fast tempi, rhythmically re-shaped to fit into the musical design – since there is, of course, no dramatic situation to illustrate.
Mr Kentner's description of the Wagnerian Leitmotive brings to mind Debussy's notorious reference of them as ''calling cards''. Frankly, it is absolute nonsense. It is highly ironic that Mr Kentner should mention an over-simplification for that is precisely what his notion is, and a crass one at that. Even in Wagner's three ''middle'' operas the situation is more complex than that. But from Das Rheingold onwards Wagner handled his motifs very much in the Lisztian fashion indeed; they do change a great deal and so, sometimes, does their meaning. I should think that the exact opposite is true, and it is very interesting as well: Liszt's ''transformation of themes'' technique is remarkably similar to Wagner's use of Leitmotive. Furthermore, there is some evidence that it was Liszt, with his symphonic poems and with the Sonata, who primarily influenced Wagner in that direction, rather than vice versa as was thought until recently. Anyway, though glaring, such defect is a small price to pay for Mr Kentner's otherwise spectacularly thought-provoking discussions.
(By the way, at another place Mr Kentner flatly tells us that when playing the operatic paraphrases, the pianist must forget all original sources used by Liszt. This is another simply preposterous claim. It goes without saying, of course, that the best of these works are thoroughly Lisztian in character, so much so that they can be regarded as original works, and surely they must be played as such. But not to be familiar with the original operatic contexts of the themes Liszt so ingeniously uses cannot but severely handicap the interpretation, though not the technical excellence of the performance of course. Liszt's amazing insight into famous operas such as Mozart's Don Giovanni and Bellini's Norma has been generally recognised, to say nothing of his ability for dramatic compression of three-hour works for the stage into a twenty-minute piano piece. Besides, intimacy with the operas of Donizetti, Meyerbeer or even Gounod, may often be highly revealing about Liszt's genius, for in many of these cases he reportedly improved the original material. But let's stop here.)
The prolific British composer Humphrey Searle (1912–1985) was a student of Anton Webern himself in
Vienna and later one of the pioneers
of serial music (if that is the right word) in . Nobody today remembers a
single piece by Mr Searle, but he has definitely secured his place as one of
the foremost Lisztian scholars of the last century. For this, of course, is the
man who created the most comprehensive and convenient catalogue of Liszt's
enormous output. It has been much revised and augmented through the years, as
many new works and more accurate information about the old ones emerged, but
its wonderful layout collecting all revisions of a single work together has
been retained, and so were almost all of Mr Searle's original numbers. You know
these mysterious signs that are often put after Liszt's works – ''S'' with a
number? They refer to Mr Searle's catalogue. It is true that Peter Raabe (R)
was there first, some two decades or so before his British colleague, but his
catalogue is far more obsolete and seldom used today. England
By the way, about half a century ago Mr Searle wrote what is still the best short introduction to Liszt's dauntingly complex oeuvre: The Music of Liszt (1954; Second Revised Edition, 1966), which, incidentally, contains his catalogue too. The book has justly become a classic and is an absolutely obligatory reading for every aspiring Lisztian. So Mr Searle was obviously the perfect man to write a chapter on Liszt's symphonic works and, much as I wince painfully at some of his evaluations, I must confess that he did a splendid job.
Though you may find much of it in The Music of Liszt, ''The Orchestral Works'' is altogether richer and more detailed exposition of Liszt's far from negligible symphonic output: 13 symphonic poems, 2 symphonies (politely called so, actually symphonic poems too), and several highly original works such as Deux épisodes d'apres le Faust de Lenau (the second of these ''episodes'' is the orchestral version of the famous First Mephisto Waltz), Trois Odes Funèbres and Zweiter Mephisto Waltz. Mr Searle discusses them all, and he always has something interesting to say about the historical background, the musical value or the programmatic interpretation of these, to my mind, astonishing works. The only qualm I personally have with Mr Searle's treatment, as already remarked, are his opinions of some of the poems, most notably Tasso and Mazzeppa; though somewhat mitigated in comparison with earlier writings, they still sound faintly ridiculous. No matter.
Mr Searle gives quite enough to compensate for whatever shortcomings he may or may not have. He gives all relevant quotes from the literary originals that inspired the Faust and Dante symphonies and he discusses in detail the long dramatic poem by Nicholas Lenau (how fascinating is the footnote which tells us that the fellow visited the USA in 1832 and went mad in 1844 – as if the former caused the latter) that stimulated Liszt to create the ''two episodes'' mentioned above, here given somewhat confusingly in English: The Procession by Night and The Dance at the Village Inn, rather than in the original German: Der nächtliche Zug and Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke. This is perhaps the only instance when Mr Searle gets just a little carried away with the descriptive quality of Liszt's works, giving a very detailed program that the music is supposed to follow. On the whole, however, the author is a strong proponent of the very sensible notion – still disputed by some misguided Lisztians – that in his so called ''program works'' Liszt always was much more interested in expressing philosophical ideas and mental states, rather than using music merely for onomatopoetic descriptions or story-telling.
Some of Mr Searle's opinions are pretty advanced for the time of writing. The prime example here is a conundrum Alan Walker was to dedicate a whole chapter to in his biography later: ''The Raff Case''. Joachim Raff was a minor composer who helped Liszt, at the time relatively inexperienced in matters of orchestration, by making fair copies of the scores of his early symphonic poems. Rather unfortunately, later Raff managed to convince quite a few people that it was he who more or less orchestrated these works. It has been shown by pretty much everybody in the field of Lisztian scholarship – Raabe, Searle, Walker – that this is pure nonsense. Mr Searle's chapter makes one of the most powerful cases that Raff was nothing more than ''a rather superior copyist''.
As a matter of fact, and as pointed by Leslie Howard, when he settled in
in the late 1840s Liszt was far more
experienced with writing for orchestra than it was generally believed until
After 1854 he never used collaborators in this respect again (with the single exception
of Doppler, see below). As for Raff, despite his grand claims, he may have
given Liszt nothing more but a few minor hints about the orchestration of the
first six of his symphonic poems. Mr Searle spends considerable time to stress
that ''the final printed versions of all of Liszt's orchestral works were
written by himself''. Virtually all of the works that Raff copied were later
thoroughly revised by Liszt who had the benefit of trying them in performance
with the Weimar
orchestra. Speaking of this, one of the most precious bits of history in Mr
Searle's chapter is his description of the orchestra that was at Liszt's
disposal. This must be quoted to be believed: Weimar
It is revealing to look at the orchestra Liszt had at his disposal at
. In 1851, the
orchestra (which was then led by Joachim) consisted of five first violins, six
second violins, three violas, four cellos, three basses, two each of flutes,
oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, one trombone, one
tuba, and one timpanist. Later in the year Liszt asked the Court for a second
and third trombone, harp, organ, and some percussion instruments. Weimar
Imagine conducting the world premiere of Wagner's Lohengrin with such an orchestra! Nevertheless, despite the meagre orchestral forces which hardly amount to much more than a chamber orchestra by modern standards, Liszt had the priceless opportunity to hear many of his symphonic works rehearsed and performed, thus allowing him to make numerous corrections in search of perfection. At any rate, nobody takes seriously Raff's flatulent claims anymore. Nor, indeed, is there much doubt that Franz Doppler had little to do with the orchestration of six of Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies in later years. The names of both Franzes appear in the score, but according to Walter Bache, one of Liszt's pupils, ''Doppler had nothing to do with them''; apparently the fellow was a flute player who had tried his hand at orchestration and when Liszt later published the results, ''he very generously put Doppler's name on the title out of compliment for him. '', continues Bache.
All in all, considering the space allotted to Mr Searle, his overview of Liszt's symphonic output is superbly comprehensive and, despite the wealth of musical examples, it makes a very enjoyable reading even for laymen. It is unfortunately modern in some aspects. Der nächtliche Zug is still vastly neglected in the concert hall, the magnificent Funeral Odes are virtually never heard, and pretty much the same is the case with Liszt's remarkable orchestrations of his two Legends for solo piano. Indeed, most of Liszt's symphonic poems are seldom performed live and only slightly more often recorded.
The rest five essays, concerned entirely with Liszt's music, are certainly inferior to the brilliant stuff provided by Messrs Walker, Kentner, Hedley, Sitwell and Searle – but not much. If anything, these essays, though primarily technical, make a much more rewarding read for the layman than both modern Liszt Companions taken together (the Cambridge one, ed. Kennett Hamilton, and the one edited by Ben Arnold, first published in 2005 and 2002, respectively). So these chapters may be dealt with in a rather more perfunctory manner than the previous ones, but they still contain a number of arresting points. Among them, the essay by Mr Ogdon stands out as an excellent piece.
John Ogdon (1937–1989) is an English virtuoso pianist of international reputation, not least in the works of Franz Liszt (check his stupendous recital in Moscow, 1976). Despite his constant health problems and gentle reticence, or perhaps precisely because of them, Mr Ogdon, in addition to original performer and prolific composer, apparently developed into a fine writer as well. Among his most original touches is an astonishing comparison of the friendship between Liszt and Wagner with that between Melville and Hawthorne.
Allied to these personal disappointments (indeed, it was one of them) is the cooling of his friendship with Wagner. And here a remarkable analogy may be drawn with Herman Melville and the course of his friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Both Melville and Liszt engaged in the dangerous ideal of total artistic friendship; in both cases these were at first fruitful, but later disappointing. Perhaps not at first, but eventually, Wagner and Hawthorne brought to these friendships less of soul-sharing and more of watchful calculation. Hawthorne drew back from Melville's growing antipathy to temporal society, while Wagner eventually disowned Liszt's prophetic vision to such an extent as to draw from Szabolcsi the cry: 'Was it in this light, that his closest and most intimate friend saw him? If so, what could he expect from his enemies?'
Other analogies between Liszt and Melville are possible. Both were successful in their early years, and highly extrovert. But in later life they exemplified, against the experience of humanity as a whole, a marked personality change, a withdrawal into complete introversion; and this kind of transformation is still not common. At the height of his career Melville wrote to
: 'I have almost made up my mind to be
annihilated', which closely parallels Liszt's: 'It seems to me, now, high time
that I should be somewhat forgotten'. Hawthorne
But even as Melville followed his cri de coeur with a novel longer and more ambitious than Moby-Dick 'his battle with the cracken', Pierre, so Liszt for some time after his aside to von Herbeck did not cease to write large-scale works, continuing the traditions of the Weimar period. The 'early' late works of Liszt, which include the two Franciscan Legends, the two Etudes de Concert, the Rhapsodie Espagnole, the Weinen, Klagen variations and the Fantasia and Fugue on B.A.C.H. are, so to speak, annotations of the
period, still displaying his interest of that time in larger forms, in
pianistic virtuosity and romantic flamboyance. I shall now look at these pieces
in more detail. Weimar
So Mr Ogdon did and, on the whole, his chapter is almost on the extremely high level of those by Alan Walker and Louis Kentner, sharing the same – so essential for studying Liszt and so often badly neglected – great understanding of both the man and his music. Mr Ogdon's casual note as regards the beautiful piece Angelus – that ''underlines the piety and simplicity never far behind Liszt's flamboyance'' – is a convincing proof that his writing on Liszt is well worth reading. He also mentions a number of charming details which are bound to raise your appreciation of Liszt's music, such as the stories behind Liszt's Two Legends, some of his most explicitly programmatic works, or the translation and the etymology of enigmatic titles like Sursum Corda or Sunt Lacrymae Rerum. The latter derives from Virgil's apparently famous line ''The sense of tears in mortal things'', whereas the former literally means ''The Heart Above'' and is one of the sentences intoned in the Latin mass before the singing of the ''Sanctus''. Finally, it is worth noting – indeed, repeating – that Mr Ogdon regards the unbelievable transformation in Liszt's old age as unprecedented in the history of music, Beethoven's three periods being ''a monolithic unity'' in comparison.
The rest of the musical chapters are less accomplished but certainly not without points of interest.
In addition to a fine, if necessarily superficial, overview, Mr Wilde analyses perceptively the Norma Fantasy, its connections with Bellini's opera and its technical challenges, and he is rather charmingly awed by the extraordinary scope of Liszt's operatic paraphrases in terms of exploring the instrument's full advantages – and even anticipating some of them. It is worth noting for the record that the first part (figuratively speaking, for there are no actual pauses between the different parts) of the Norma Fantasy is based on the two contrasting themes from the opera's Introductory chorus, Ite sul colle, o Druidi, the enchanting middle part employs Norma's aria Deh! non vorerli vittime together with a theme from Qual cor tradisti; the former of these is used twice more, surrounding the rousing chorus Guerra, Guerra. There is also an excellent and very helpful scheme of the fantasy that includes all these lines from the libretto together with some, alas, incomprehensible for the layman things such as bars and tonalities. Mr Wilde also makes a most amusing defence of the art of transcription which, indeed, in Liszt's case was not much different than the art of composition:
Originality is relative anyway, and composers who try to be absolutely original succeed only in becoming totally incomprehensible.
The only thing that mars Mr Wilde's chapter is his negativity towards, of all pieces, the Don Juan Fantasy. If there is an operatic fantasy by Liszt that even all detractors of the genre, to say nothing of enemies to Liszt himself, must acknowledge as a masterpiece, it is this one. Yet for Mr Wilde it is ''unacceptable'' simply because he ''feels'' that Mozart's opera ''is not suited to this kind of treatment''. Mr Wilde then calls in his defence Busoni himself, no less, and his ludicrous statement: ''We willingly agree with the strict purists who maintain that the Don Juan Fantasy treats sacred themes in altogether too worldly a fashion. '' Now, one doesn't easily disagree with Lisztian scholar and formidable pianist of Busoni's calibre, but it simply must be said that the German-Italian wrote pure nonsense in this case. ''Sacred themes''? What exactly is sacred about a seduction duet and a drinking song? Even the menacing music of the Commendatore can at best be described as ''supernatural'', which is of course something completely different than ''sacred''. I don't mind controversial statements, quite to the contrary indeed, but I demand a great deal better arguments than that. Mr Wilde tries to provide them and ends in some confused discussion about our awareness of history in which he somehow manages to involve Marx, Darwin and Freud. In short, you will be all the better for skipping the last two pages or so from this essay.
Mr Collet's two essays are finely done. I disagree with him about the loose structure of the Second Concerto, but I am pleased by his high opinion of the First one, especially by his statement that it has often been victim of ''distorted and meretricious performances'' and is still an underrated work – a startlingly modern notion that. Also to his credit, Mr Collet takes issue with Bartok's inane criticism that one of the most lyrical variations (IV) degrades so fine a work as Totentanz, which Mr Collet regards as Liszt's masterpiece in the genre. It is also nice of him to mention the Fantasy on Themes from Berlioz's Lélio, a work that was not even published in 1970; today not only it is, but it has already been recorded several times. Apparently we are making some progress, if a slow one, towards better appreciation of Liszt's oeuvre.
Mr Collet's chapter on the choral works is even better done and even more relevant – for even today, more than 40 years later, almost all of Liszt's choral works are completely neglected. Mr Collet's comparative analysis of Christus and St Elisabeth is highly illuminating about the strengths and the weaknesses of Liszt's two major oratorios. It is amazing how different these two works really are. While St Elisabeth is a kind of semi-opera, or at least the closest to opera Liszt ever come (except for his juvenile Don Sanche), and has a remarkable thematic unity (akin to Wagner's music dramas indeed), the structure of Christus is much looser and its material is more varied. This naturally makes parts of the latter work more suitable for separate performance: a point of crucial importance since three-hour works for large orchestra, soloists and chorus are pretty expensive to produce. Mr Collet's admiration for the Gran Mass is touching, for he frankly tells us that he sees no other reason than prejudice why this ''remarkable work'' should not become established in the choral repertory. He finishes his discussion on the subject in a most admirable way:
My own belief is that Liszt's choral works contain some of the most underrated music in the whole literature. But one does not help to a real understanding of it by mere assertions. Musicians should study these works for themselves, and draw their own conclusions.
Today there are available at least one or two recordings of most, if by no means all, of Liszt's choral works. Needless to say, all of them were made much later than 1970.
As for Liszt's songs, another almost completely forgotten works today, Mr Headington has a number of interesting things to say about languages, tonality, structure, countless revisions or the tenuous relationship between words and music. One wonders why Liszt's Lieder are still so badly neglected. It is amazing to note how many Lisztians have expressed their admiration of these works: Alan Walker, Humprey Searle, Sacheverell Sitwell, Harold Schonberg. So the finely balanced appreciation of Mr Headington puts him in a most distinguished company.
In conclusion, magnificent book for all committed Lisztians, musicians or laymen. It is certainly badly dated and it must be read only after one is intimately familiar with Alan Walker's magisterial biography. But it does contain infinitely greater amount of insight and wisdom about Liszt's personality and music than the much more modern Liszt Companions – the Cambridge one edited by Kenneth Hamilton, and the one edited by Ben Arnold, as mentioned above – both of which are far less dated, but far less compelling and a great deal more prejudiced as well. It is a pity that there is no new and updated edition of this volume – especially considering the fact that the editor is still alive and active – but second-hand copies of any of the old editions from the 1970s are easy to obtain and very cheap. The book is worth every cent and every minute you spend on it. I promise.
 See Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, vol. 1: The Virtuoso Years, first published in 1983, revised edition first published in 1987.
 Liszt: The Complete Music for Solo Piano, vol. 2: Ballades, Legendes, Polonaises; Leslie Howard, piano; Hyperion, 1988. Liner notes by Leslie Howard.
 Sacheverell Sitwell, Liszt,
, 1967. First
published, 1934. Revised edition, 1955. Dover
 Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1.
 See Liszt: The Complete Music for Solo Piano, vol. 1: Waltzes; Leslie Howard, piano; Hyperion Records, 1986. Liner notes by Leslie Howard.
 See, for example, Leslie Howard’s liner notes to Liszt: The Complete Music for Solo Piano, vol. 53a, Hyperion Records, 1998. Writing of the of Fantasy on themes from Berlioz’s Lélio, an early (1834) and virtually unknown work (S120), Leslie says: “It is a pleasure to report that the original manuscript of this work, long undiscovered, recently surfaced at auction in France (although sadly not in its entirety), and it revealed immediately that Liszt carried out his own orchestration – it is astonishing that there are still many commentators who believe the hoary myth that Liszt only began to study orchestration in his Weimar years, and that much of his instrumentation was done by other hands. This is bunk, and Lélio Fantasy shows it to have been so from the beginning.” It might be worth reminding that in 1834 Liszt turned 23.
 See previous note.